As prime minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis is hitting play on his nation’s sunny ambitions and, after years in the geopolitical wilderness, he is seeking to renew the economy and refresh what ‘brand Greece’ means to the world. And it’s making Greece a soft-power player to watch. Monocle’s Tyler Brûlé and Andrew Tuck visit Maximos Mansion in Athens to meet one of Europe’s most dynamic leaders.
monocle meets Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, with the country – like much of Europe – in lockdown because of coronavirus. But as he talks in his office at Maximos Mansion, the tone is one of confidence and pride. The 52-year-old has led his country since July 2019, steering the nation through months of a global health crisis (with Greece winning praise for its handling of the virus, especially in the first wave), while also nurturing a revival of national confidence after years of painful economic austerity and populist government.
Mitsotakis has hit play on a new image and role for Greece that is seeing the return of a highly talented diaspora, a rapid rise in foreign direct investment, tax incentives given to encourage an increasingly vibrant start-up scene and a renewed determination for Greece to play a pivotal diplomatic, military and economic role in the Eastern Mediterranean, where relations with Turkey are tense because of clashing claims over maritime borders and “exclusive economic zones”. And ties have become all the more strained following the discovery of hydrocarbon reserves in the region.
“This is the birthplace of democracy. The Greek people elected a government that is moderate and focuses on strengthening institutions and transparency”
Yet today, surrounded by a youthful team, Mitsotakis is keen to also talk about how the EU-backed National Recovery and Sustainability Plan will help to reshape Greece. And why, perhaps, you should be on an Aegean flight to Athens to see what the country has to offer everyone, from nomadic technology workers to companies seeking high-end manufacturing.
Tyler Brûlé: Prime minister, what shape was Greece in when you were elected?
We came into power in July 2019, in circumstances which were very different from the current context. But, essentially, what happened in Greece, during those elections was a resounding defeat of the particular brand of populism that flourished here between 2015 and 2019. During those years the country was run by a government where the majority was held by a leftist radical party elected on a populist platform that teamed up with a fringe party of the extreme right. Those were difficult days for Greece, particularly on the economic front. We almost went bankrupt in 2015; our banks closed. So we imposed unnecessary hardship on our people and growth lagged way behind in those years. There was also a time when our institutions were challenged. But this is the birthplace of democracy. The Greek people voted freely and elected to power a government that is moderate and focuses on strengthening institutions and transparency.
Andrew Tuck: When you see people in the diaspora returning to Greece, people wanting to invest here, are you surprised at the speed at which this new confidence has taken root?
Last year was extremely challenging on various fronts. I’m not just talking about the pandemic: we also had real issues with Turkey and issues on the migration side. So it felt as though we were constantly in crisis-management mode. But Greek society really came together, especially during the first phase of the pandemic: there was a huge surge in national confidence, a belief, a sense of pride that we managed to deal with this issue much more successfully than many other countries. Obviously, we have been challenged during the second phase; we haven’t done as well, objectively, as within the first phase. But for a country that came out of 10 years of economic hardship with a healthcare system that had come under a lot of strain, we’ve done remarkably well. I’m a big believer in trust. And trust between people and the political elite had been shattered during the [financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath]. We’re rebuilding this trust, step by step. There’s a general feeling that Greece has turned the corner, a new sense of national confidence – that’s very much exhibited in our diaspora. These are highly talented people who left the country during the crisis. The reason they’re returning – or contemplating returning – isn’t just to do with the fact that they’re offered more professional opportunities; it also has to do with a general sense that the country is moving in the right direction.
TB: You touched on Turkey and migration issues. How would you assess the current geopolitical climate at this end of the Mediterranean? It was a bit spicy over the summer...
“Spicy” is an interesting word for describing what happened during the summer. It certainly became heated with Turkey. We have rediscovered the strategic importance of the Eastern Mediterranean. This is important not just for Greece and Cyprus but also for Europe. Our differences with Turkey also affect its relationship with Europe. That is why, I think, Europe has taken the decision to impose additional measures on Turkey, regarding its illegal drilling and its illegal hydrocarbon activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. And there is a general sense that Turkey is behaving in a manner that is not conducive towards promoting peace and friendship in the region. I’ve always extended the hand of friendship to Turkey. And I’ve always encouraged President Erdogan to sit down and discuss the main difference that we have, which is the delimitation of our maritime zones. The story goes back decades but we can resolve it. If we can’t, we can take it to the International Court. That’s why international courts exist.
TB: On migration, do you feel that your diplomats in Brussels have to work harder to explain the role that you’re playing here?
We received a lot of support in March, when Turkey systematically tried to breach our border and send tens of thousands of desperate people into Greece and into Europe. But we defended the border with Turkey and, 48 hours later, the leadership of the EU showed up there to express their solidarity. But it’s not just a question of support. Some European states are hiding behind the fact that we have to protect the borders, without expressing any real solidarity. When it comes to dealing with refugee flows we’ve made it very clear that we’re changing our approach towards protecting our borders. Of course, people will end up arriving in Greece and those who are entitled to asylum will be granted asylum; this is an open and welcoming country for those who flee persecution and war. Quite a few have actually made Greece their homeland and we’re happy and proud to have them. But we do draw a line between refugees and economic migrants. At the same time, we ask for European solidarity. It is completely unacceptable that there are countries, especially some Eastern European countries, that are unwilling to contribute.
AT: The coronavirus recovery plan that you’ve put together will change how the country is run and its ambitions. Do you see the pandemic as an opportunity?
I want to transform the country into one that is open and competitive, one that plays a leading role in the region and, most of all, one that embraces change and rises to the challenges of a rapidly transforming world. We have punched below our weight for some time. The pandemic has offered us an additional tool that we did not have at our disposal: money. Greece’s allocation from the [EU] recovery and resilience fund was €32bn. That can help us to drive through transformative projects. We want to focus on high-end manufacturing; this is not just a country that can offer exceptional services. This is a beautiful country and coronavirus has demonstrated that you can work from anywhere. Greece is also becoming a technology hub. When Microsoft announced a huge investment in data centres here, a lot of people noticed – because when Microsoft decides to invest in a country, they’ve done their due diligence. Greece has huge potential to become a centre for next- generation biopharma. If you just look the US biotech and big-pharma industries, you will find so many Greeks: the ceo of Pfizer is Greek and Regeneron is essentially a Greek- run company.
TB: Let’s touch on national branding. How much polishing or refining does the way in which a country projects itself on the international stage need? And is there room for ‘Made in Greece’ in a tangible sense?
We are in the process of developing a very ambitious rebranding strategy for the country. And this needs to be reflected in our brand – in the aesthetics but also in the messaging and in the stories that we tell. A brand is an aggregation of the sort of surprising stories that emerge out of Greece that many people would not necessarily anticipate coming from here. We focus a lot on our glorious past – and we certainly have a lot to talk about on that front. But there’s a very promising future ahead of us too. And the one thing that distinguishes Greece should always be quality. If you look at the Greek wine industry, for example, it is really booming. We have exceptional wine that is receiving rave reviews, and completely new varieties. I don’t want to compete with the French and cabernet sauvignon. Instead, I want to focus on xinomavro or mavrotragano, which are varieties that you have probably never heard of. But people who taste these wines are absolutely thrilled because the varieties are Greek; they’re original – and they tell a story. And if you combine the discovery of these wines with travel off the beaten track, then you can really tell a very compelling story. For example, Santorini is known for its beautiful sunset but it also produces exceptional wine.
TB: Let’s end on a sunny note. Without giving away too many state secrets, what are the big initiatives on the horizon?
I’m excited about launching our national brand in 2021, which is an emblematic year for Greece: we’re celebrating 200 years since the beginning of the war of independence. It’s a good opportunity to take stock of what we have achieved. At the time, Greece was essentially a part of the Ottoman Empire. Compared with all of the other countries in the region we’ve probably done better than most, if not all. It has been a very bumpy ride: the story of Greece has always been a story of triumphs followed by catastrophes. But the trajectory has been the correct one: we were always on the right side of history when it came to making the big choices. So this year provides a good opportunity to look back and learn from our mistakes but also to draw strength from the things that we’ve done well and chart a course for the next decade. There’s no silver bullet. But then you realise that [defining your country is] like a puzzle: you start putting pieces in place, the beginning doesn’t make much sense but, suddenly, you realise what it is all about. That’s the way I feel about this project.
Listen out for the full interview with Prime Minister Mitsotakis on Monocle 24